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For death investigators, it's about the living

When Jordan Adam Criado stabbed his wife and children and set their Medford home on fire, the murders sent shock waves through firefighters, police, hospital workers, neighbors and the community at large.

The home’s lawn looked like a war zone on July 18, 2011, as first responders tried to resuscitate 30-year-old Tabasha Paige-Criado, three boys ages 5, 6 and 7, and a 2-year-old girl. The victims were rushed to local hospitals but could not be saved.

Community members left mounds of stuffed animals and flowers at the home on 10th Street, and hundreds attended a vigil in Hawthorne Park.

As the tragedy played out in public, the bodies of the mother and four children were brought in for autopsies at the Oregon State Police Crime Lab in Central Point.

Tim Pike, a detective with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office who specializes in death investigations, was there.

During an autopsy, State Medical Examiner Dr. James Olson and investigating detectives usually discuss a case.

“We autopsied all four children and the mother,” Pike said. “And it was me, Dr. Olson and a detective. And there really wasn’t a word said during those autopsies. That whole day was absolutely quiet.”

The autopsies showed Criado had stabbed his wife and three boys. All four children had been dosed with the sleep aid melatonin. The victims also had carbon monoxide poisoning from inhaling smoke.

Investigators believe Criado murdered his family and tried to commit suicide because his wife wanted a divorce. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2013.

Pike said the case took a toll on the whole community, including the small, silent group inside the autopsy room.

“How do you get back on track after that?” he asked.

But for Pike, 53, finding a way to keep going is a part of the job.

He and Detective Ben Fazio, 43, are the full-time medical examiners for the sheriff’s office.

Their caseload is death — murders, suicides, accidents, drug overdoses and other sudden or unattended deaths.

The job of a medical examiner is to figure out the cause and manner of a death.

With the help of two part-time medical examiners, Pike and Fazio provide 24-hour coverage for all of Jackson County. While they aren’t doctors themselves, they act as the eyes and ears for Dr. Olson, a state medical examiner who covers multiple counties.

“I may have a call in Prospect, and then 10 minutes later, a call in Ashland,” Pike said. “It’s a very big county.”

When he arrives at the scene of a death, Pike looks for evidence that shows how the person died. He also checks to see if evidence is consistent with the apparent cause of death.

The location and pattern of blood will be different, for example, in a case of a suicide by shotgun versus a chronic alcoholic who dies of an esophageal bleed, Pike said.

If a person dies behind the wheel, are the injuries consistent with a high-speed collision? If a body has been found, are the postmortem changes consistent with descriptions about when the person was last seen alive?

Although on paper a medical examiner’s job is about the dead, Pike said he has learned the job is also about the living.

There for the living

Pike has worked almost 24 years with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office — 18 of those as a medical examiner.

Back when he was a patrol officer, he went out on death cases. A superior noticed the reports he filed and asked Pike if he was interested in becoming a medical examiner.

Pike already had started to feel drawn to death investigations. In one case, he had held the hand of a bereaved family member. The family of the deceased sent a letter to the sheriff’s office saying they had appreciated Pike’s presence.

“For me, what I found working death cases was I was actually helping people. I was helping the living,” he said.

As a medical examiner, Pike helps families learn what to expect from a death investigation, makes sure a chaplain is on the way if needed, talks with them about autopsy results if one was performed and is otherwise there to offer aid.

Months or years later, he sometimes sees family members at a grocery store or restaurant who still remember him.

“There’s that connection still. I always hope that I’ve treated them appropriately and answered those questions and been there for them,” he said.

While Pike is compassionate with families, he tries to control his emotions and keep a detached, professional attitude toward the person who has died.

“It’s a human being, and obviously we treat these cases with the utmost respect,” he said, but added that he doesn’t want to know the deceased person’s favorite television show or see school photos of a dead child.

If Pike loses control of his emotions, that could jeopardize the investigation. In the worst-case scenario, a killer could go free. On a day-to-day basis, he has to be ready to go out to the next death scene.

“I have to just tell myself there’s an equally sad case waiting for me,” he said.

Fazio said he and Pike meet families on what is often the worst day of their lives.

But for a medical examiner, the death might be their second or third of the day.

“We go into people’s lives at a very intimate, personal time,” Fazio said.

He became a full-time medical examiner in 2017 after years as a firefighter and in law enforcement.

Fazio said it wasn’t easy to decide to investigate death full-time.

“When I was looking at all those pros and cons, there were some cons,” he recalled. “I wasn’t sure if I was mature enough to handle that day in and day out. I’d seen a lot of death. I’ve seen a lot of injuries over my career, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it every day. What was really the tipping point was to come work for Tim.”

Fazio said Pike is his mentor, showing him that every death investigation deserves the same level of care — whether the person who died is a wealthy business owner or a homeless man who died along the Bear Creek Greenway.

Fazio said he always has been struck by the way Pike treats not just families, but colleagues in law enforcement.

“He values everybody else’s opinions,” Fazio said. “Because some people can be intimidated. If you’re a rookie and you’re on your first death investigation and the medical examiner Tim Pike shows up who’s been doing it it seems forever, you can be intimidated by that and maybe not say what your thoughts were — maybe not point out something that you thought was suspicious or what you thought might be involved in the death. He’s very good at bringing people in.”

In December 2018, the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association presented Pike with its annual Meritorious Service Award, citing his skill, compassion for families and willingness to share his knowledge with others in law enforcement.

Talent Police Chief Tim Doney, a former detective and a past deputy chief with the Medford Police Department, has known Pike for years.

“Tim Pike is a 10 in my book,” Doney said. “He’s out there with us during crazy hours of the night in all kinds of weather. He’s very intelligent and thorough. I’ve seen his interactions with families who’ve lost loved ones. He’s always been real compassionate. It’s a tough job. It’s not for everyone. It’s an ugly job for anyone to have.”

Doney noted people die on holidays, in the wee hours of the morning, in locations that are hard to reach. Sometimes they’ve been dead long enough they are decomposing.

He said people in law enforcement see many terrible things, but they can also tell happy and dramatic stories about work. Not so for those who specialize in death investigation.

“If you’re in that position, it’s a heavy dose of sadness pretty much daily,” he said.

Doney said he’s grateful that people like Pike, Fazio and Dr. Olson are willing to step up and fill a role society needs.

Changing times

In his years on the job, Pike has seen changes in the ways people die.

The local and nationwide spike in drug overdose deaths has been well publicized, but a quieter epidemic of preventable death is also taking place in Jackson County. Pike said the county had 58 suicides in 2017, but suicides will likely number about 73 for 2018 once toxicology results are in.

“This last year, our suicide rate in Jackson County was an all-time high,” he said.

The national average for suicides is 12 per 100,000 people. Based on that rate, Jackson County should average about 25 suicide deaths each year, Pike said.

“We always run high in Jackson County, but it really took off, unfortunately,” he said.

The suicide victims are predominantly men who used guns, he said.

While the reasons why people commit suicide often remain a mystery, some people left behind notes or written material on their computers showing they had experienced a loss of hope. The suicides didn’t seem to be about specific problems like a break-up or job loss, Pike said.

He noted one person had been traveling and mentioned not being able to find the good in people. The person perceived the world as empty and no longer wanted to be a part of it.

“Certainly we’re becoming a society of less human interaction and maybe that has something to do with it,” Pike said.

When people get to know each other personally, they see that other people are flawed and make mistakes, but they also learn people have good hearts, he said.

With the rise of social media, people often post comments when someone dies, using the death to make political jabs, Fazio said.

“Everyone chimes in. ‘Darn druggies!’ ‘The Democrats did it again!’ ‘He was probably a Trump supporter!’ It’s totally dehumanizing,” Fazio said. “There’s a ‘heart’ problem out there. You can be anonymous. You never have to look anybody in the eye.”

Fazio said it’s easy for members of the public to be callous when they hear someone has died, especially if the death is due to a drug overdose.

“We see it in a different way. We’re sitting on the couch with the person’s parents, their kids. We are hearing about their history. So we see a more human side of it,” he said.

Pike said he remembers a person posting about a homeless man who had died, saying he probably had a shopping cart full of drugs and stolen property.

“I’ve gone through the shopping carts of people who froze to death,” Pike said, noting what he actually finds is clothes and food remnants as he searches for identification and information to contact the next of kin.

No matter how much the job changes, Pike said he will never get used to death notifications.

“If you told me to go do one right now, I’d be sweaty and my stomach would be in a knot,” he said. “I still feel like a rookie. I hate doing them.”

Pike said he can’t forget the night in 2005 when he had to visit the mother of Leah Felicity Castillo. The 18-year-old Ashland High School student had won a scholarship to Arizona State University. But Castillo was killed on graduation night in a head-on collision with a speeding, intoxicated driver.

“That case was one I wanted to sit and cry,” Pike said. “I had to wake the mother up and tell her her daughter had died.”

Fazio said he nervously thinks about how he’ll stand and the expression he’ll have on his face when he walks up to a stranger’s house to tell them a loved one has died.

“You hope they found out somehow. You’re the one who’s going to show up and dump that horrible thing on them,” he said.

There’s no way to predict how the person will react to the news.

“Sometimes they don’t believe you,” Fazio said. “Sometimes they think they’re dreaming. Sometimes there’s inappropriate laughter. Some have no reaction. There’s no perfect way to respond. People will apologize for how they reacted.”

Like many in law enforcement, Pike and Fazio said they use humor to counter the troubling aspects of the job.

A year ago, the various departments in the sheriff’s office were in a competition with each other to see who could lose the most weight. Fazio made a fake flyer advertising a pie-eating contest to tempt his calorie-conscious colleagues.

“I was getting hungry reading it,” Pike said, even though he was in on the joke and knew there was no line-up of tasty pies.

The departments also resorted to sabotage during the weight-loss challenge.

“Cheetos started appearing in our office and I have a weakness for Cheetos,” Pike said.

In 2018, police departments across the nation made lip sync videos set to popular music.

Responding to a challenge from the Medford Police Department, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office made a lip sync video using popular songs, then challenged the Ashland and Eagle Point police departments to do the same.

The Sheriff’s Office video has garnered more than 250,000 views.

At the end of the video, dozens of dancing, lip syncing sheriff’s office employees notice Detective Steve Bohn is missing.

Bohn — who investigates child abuse cases and received the state sheriff’s association Deputy of the Year Award in December 2018 — is shown singing in the shower with a rubber ducky, having missed the video shoot.

“We use humor a lot just to get us laughing,” Pike said.

Pike said when he’s not on the job, he doesn’t watch television shows like “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” Instead, he’s more likely to look up a YouTube video about acts of kindness caught on camera.

“It’s about survivability over a long career. I want to come out on the end of my career OK,” he said.

Pike said people in law enforcement are constantly exposed to the negative side of humanity.

“I tell new officers all the time you have to remember the good out there. You have to go find it,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

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